The following article was originally published April 1, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist.
Story by Caroline Champlin
As of this week, about one in three American households have completed the census. L.A. County is close behind but when we zoom in, we see a different picture. A Census Bureau map of individual tracts shows that participation is already starting to look segregated.
Predominantly wealthy and white Rancho Palos Verdes, for example, is way ahead of the state — almost half of the city's households have submitted the census. But in heavily Latino Southeast L.A., an area considered high risk for an undercount, response rates are significantly lower. According to a recent estimate, only about one in ten households had submitted the census in the first week of the count.
Over the last year, NALEO Educational Fund, a Latino advocacy group, worked in Southeast L.A. to raise awareness about the census, assuring people that it won't ask about citizenship status. Then, this month, they suspended in-person outreach as a precaution against the coronavirus.
When NALEO Director of the Census, Lizette Escobedo, saw the initial self-response numbers, she was surprised. "I'll be honest and that given the situation and the circumstances, I was expecting lower," she said.
To Escobedo, the response data is a guide, marking the progress they've made and indicating where people still need to be reached. The numbers might seem disappointing, but Escobedo said her first thoughts were about strategy: "How do I get my field team prepared enough to read these maps to serve as a resource for their community?"
Shifting strategies in real time
NALEO was originally planning to use real-time response data to inform their street outreach. Now, they're shifting that real-time outreach to Facebook, using the platform's ability to target ads based on zip codes associated with low response rates. "I know a lot of folks who are like 'Oh, my God. Facebook knows everything about us'," Escobedo said. "But in this instance it's like 'Oh, my God. Facebook knows where people are at that we need to reach.'"
The city of Cudahy was one Southeast L.A. community lagging behind its neighbors at the start of the count. It's only about a square mile, but according to previous census data, it's one of the most densely populated areas in the county, and almost entirely Latino.
Cudahy mayor Elizabeth Alcantar Loza wasn't surprised to see that only 5% of the city's households were responding to the census — but she was still disappointed. "That's about a block of Cudahy. Very, very low, obviously," she said.
Since then, the responses in Cudahy tripled in one week. Alcantar Loza couldn't say exactly what led to the jump in responses, but it probably helped that they're raffling off gift cards to people who fill out the census. Elected officials in Cudahy have also started fostering friendly competition with other cities. Alcantar Loza is hopeful that will help close the gap between them.
L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis represents the First District, which includes the city of Cudahy. She's proud of the city's progress but she's worried the community there will be undercounted anyway if the Census Bureau doesn't modify their operations around the coronavirus.
At this point, the Bureau has moved the census submission deadline back two weeks, from July 31 to August 4.
"If it has to go to the end of the year, then so be it. I think those adjustments could be made, having seen how the federal government can work expeditiously. They can do it," Solis said. Still, she's encouraging people to complete the census despite the circumstances.
"We're gonna keep fighting on, because we still have till August. We've got to keep pressing that."